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Off to the Races

Political Myopia

The controversy over the decision to trade five Taliban detainees for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl is a good example of how differing perspectives can lead to different reactions.(Scott Olson/Getty Images)

photo of Charlie Cook
June 2, 2014

"Where you stand depends on where you sit."

It is an age-old expression that I've heard a thousand times and often found quite relevant. Intelligent and honest people can be looking at the same question, but through different lenses, and thus see different things. Sadly, though, in today's culture, rarely can there be a reasonable difference of opinion. Anyone holding an alternative view is seen as stupid, unknowledgeable, dishonest, corrupt, hypocritical, or some combination thereof.

The controversy over the Obama administration's decision to trade five Taliban detainees from the Guantanamo Bay prison for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl is a good example of how differing perspectives can lead to different reactions. In June 2009, during a combat deployment in the Paktika province of Afghanistan, Bergdahl was either captured by insurgents of the Haqqani network or he slipped away from his combat outpost and unit, possibly turning himself over to the particularly virulent Taliban-affiliate.

 

Two years ago, our son David, who is now out of the Army, served a six-month deployment during "the surge" as an enlisted man with the 82nd Airborne Division. He faced the same Haqqani network (among other Taliban-related insurgents) as Bergdahl, but in Ghazni, another eastern province adjacent to Paktika. He believes that the trade may have been a mistake, or could have been done more quietly. David explains that American soldiers are trained to do everything possible to avoid capture and, if taken, to escape. When entering a combat area, it was with the knowledge that while extraordinary efforts should and would be used to rescue captured soldiers, the U.S. would not trade captives to secure one's release (even though it has happened before and not infrequently, but done more quietly and informally). When David read about the releasing of the five Taliban detainees, he was uncomfortable with the idea that these particularly bad actors would be allowed to go free—even if they were supervised for a year by the government of Qatar—because they could continue their war against the United States.

I don't know the details of Bergdahl's situation. But David spent considerable time away from the larger and safer Forward Operating Base Warrior (bunks, three square meals a day, toilets, and a daily incoming rocket or two) at a "Joint Security Station"—a remote outpost (sleeping on the ground, burning waste, little protection other than mud walls and sandbags) with 30 other Americans and a like number of Afghan troops, where they experienced direct contact with the insurgents almost daily during two months at the height of the fighting season. Obviously, he was unsympathetic to any soldier who walked away from his unit in a combat situation.

For us as parents, however, our sympathies are with Bergdahl's family. Like millions of other families over the millennia, the terror of having a son or daughter serving in a combat unit during a very active war is an experience that we wouldn't wish on anyone. On top of that, the thought of having your own son or daughter captured or lost is simply unfathomable—we can't imagine what those parents went through. To us, the "leave no man behind" ethos of the U.S. military is paramount. However, even with those sympathies, if the details of Bergdahl's rescue as they have been reported are true (a number of U.S. soldiers were killed and wounded during the search operation), and if he had, in fact, deserted his post, then that would be deeply troubling. If we lost a family member who was part of a search for a deserter, I think my emotions might be very different. For too many people, however, the nuances and details are less important than the more dogmatic approach.

The "where you stand depends on where you sit" maxim applies equally to the just-announced standards to cut emissions. For people whose livelihood depends on coal, or who live in areas that are economically dependent on coal (and, for that matter, other fossil fuels), the Obama administration's proposed emission standards seem untenable. This perspective is nearly irreconcilable with that of those most concerned with environmental quality.

While we have always had partisan and ideological differences, these differences are now increasingly bleeding over into larger geographic, social, and cultural areas. Whether it is environmental protection, gun laws, or countless other domestic-policy issues, people from small-town and rural America see elites (e.g., city residents, liberals, and Democrats) as imposing their values and way of life on people they don't even understand and with no sympathy for their perspective. Conversely, those whose main concern is protecting the Earth and the environment see this as a battle for the planet's future, and they don't understand anyone who doesn't share those priorities or concerns.

The notion that "where you stand depends on where you sit" seems to cut little ice in our increasingly rigid society, when tolerance for different points of view is becoming increasingly rare.

Why Obama 'Negotiated With Terrorists' for Bowe Bergdahl

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